Syrian rebels have agreed a ceasefire with al-Qaeda loyalists after bitter fighting for a key border town, a monitoring group said on Friday, as the opposition condemned the jihadi assault.
The National Coalition accused al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) of violating the principles of the revolution by turning its guns on fighters of the mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Azaz.
ISIS seized the town on the border with Turkey in hours-long fighting on Wednesday, in the latest in a growing spate of clashes between jihadis and mainstream rebel units.
The Northern Storm brigade, which is loyal to the FSA and was based in Azaz, agreed to the truce with ISIS under which both sides pledged to observe a ceasefire, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The deal was brokered by Liwa al-Tawhid, a powerful rebel brigade loyal to the FSA, which sent fighters to the town on Thursday who have deployed between the two sides, the Britain-based Observatory added.
The rival groups also undertook to free detainees captured in Wednesday’s fighting and to immediately return any goods looted from the other side.
Azaz has symbolic as well as strategic value as it was one of the first towns to be captured from government troops, in July 2012, by FSA fighters, who set up their own administration.
Tensions have spiraled between some mainstream rebel groups and ISIS in recent months, especially in northern Syria, where the opposition controls vast swathes of territory.
Several local groups resent ISIS’s growing territorial control, its steady supply of arms, as well as its brutality.
ISIS, on the other hand, has accused some rebels affiliated with the FSA’s Supreme Military Command of collaborating with the West and of being “heretics”.
The opposition National Coalition issued a rare condemnation of ISIS on Friday, accusing the group of violating the principles of the revolution by turning its guns on FSA fighters.
“The Coalition condemns the aggressions against the forces of the Syrian revolution and the repeated disregard for the lives of Syrians, and considers that this behavior runs contrary to the Syrian revolution and the principles it is striving to achieve,” a statement said.
It accused ISIS of “repeated repressive practices against the freedom of civilians, doctors, journalists and political activists in recent months.”
It also accused it of having “links to foreign agendas” and of seeking to create a “new state inside the Syrian state entity in violation of national sovereignty.”
ISIS and fellow jihadi group al-Nusra Front have long posed a dilemma for the opposition and FSA commanders.
The two groups have proved themselves effective fighting machines against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and FSA commanders have been ready to cooperate with them tactically.
But their presence on the battlefield has deterred Western governments from providing the rebels with more than non-lethal assistance for fear that any weapons supplied might fall into jihadi hands.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France was in favor of sending weapons to the FSA, but only “in a controlled environment” and “with a number of countries.”
“The Russians regularly send (weapons) but we will do it in a broader context, with a number of countries and a framework which can be controlled, because we cannot have a situation where weapons end up with Islamists,” Hollande said.
“We always said we wanted to control the supply of weapons if we did this, so that they go to the FSA,” he added.
Washington too has repeatedly expressed concern about the risks of weaponry ending up in the hands of groups loyal to al-Qaeda.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, UN envoys were set to resume talks on a draft Security Council resolution that would enshrine a joint US-Russian plan to secure and neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons stock.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that a UN report has proved the Syrian government was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds of civilians.
The UN report confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the deadly attack in the suburbs of Damascus, but stopped short of assigning responsibility.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani, writing in The Washington Post, announced Tehran’s “readiness” to facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.